In-role learning environments

This posting is a belated answer to a question Mary Lynch posed in her comment on a posting here at  Mary was asking about examples of ‘successful “in role” learning environments/exercises which work in non-clinical, larger classroom settings’.  With regard to in-role learning environments, folk might be interested in what we do with simulation on our Diploma in Legal Practice in the Glasgow Graduate School of Law.  By way of background the Scottish Diploma is a postgrad professional law course that’s mandatory for anyone entering the legal profession in Scotland.  It lasts for around seven months.  During that time students are introduced to professional law, which effectively bridges from the academic legal work they do in undergrad law courses, called LLBs, into the two-year traineeship they enter after successful completion of the Diploma.   We use simulation quite a lot on the course, for a whole lot of reasons.  It’s a powerful mode of learning, which I’d recommend to anyone.  Two examples, briefly described, with references if you want to follow up:

1.        Standardized Clients (SCs)
Derived from the practice of using standardized patients in medical education.  SCs are lay people trained to be as clients with students in situations such as interviewing; and trained also to assess students on client-facing skills and attitudes.  It works very well indeed, not just to interest students in client issues, but to assess student performance with clients.  See the SC Initiative (interdisciplinary, international grouping) at for more background information.  See also Barton, K., Cunningham, C., Jones, G., Maharg, P. (2006) Valuing what clients think: standardized clients and the assessment of communicative competence, Clinical Law Review, 13, 1, 1-65.  A form of this assessment is being used by the WS Society in Scotland to assess specialty accreditation of qualified lawyers. 

 2.       Transactional simulations
We divide our Diploma student cohort into ‘firms’ and use web technologies to create transactional simulations as both learning and assessment zones.  For discussion of this, see Maharg, P. (2007) Transforming Legal Education: Learning and Teaching the Law in the Early Twenty-first Century, Ashgate Publishing chapters six through eight, with summary & wiki at See also Barton, K., McKellar, P. (2007) Authentic fictions: simulation, professionalism and legal learning, Clinical Law Review, 14, 1, 143-93; and NYLS Clinical Research Institute Paper No. 07/08-2, also at SSRN.  We call it transactional learning, deriving the term from Dewey’s use of it as far back as the late nineteenth century, and the radical experiments in pedagogy and curriculum development he was involved in at the Chicago Laboratory School and elsewhere.  We’ve written quite a lot about this, eg –

  • Emphasis on staff development and curriculum design in this new environment – see Maharg, P. (2006) On the edge: ICT and the transformation of professional legal learning, Web Journal of Current Legal Issues, 3, at, and also at SSRN. 
  • Study of how students actually worked collaboratively with each other in this environment – see Barton, K., Westwood, F. (2006) From student to trainee practitioner – a study of team working as a learning experience, at
  • An introduction to the new software, called SIMPLE (SIMulated Professional Learning Environments) that we’ve developed and are using with law schools and other professional schools (eg Architecture & Social Work at Strathclyde U.) throughout the UK, and which will be free at point of use for all FE and HE institutions in the UK in July 2008 – see Maharg, P., Owen, M. (2007) Simulations, learning and the metaverse: changing cultures in legal education, Journal of Law Information & Technology, 1, at  
  • At the upcoming Georgia State U. College of Law conference ( Liz Li, one of the students on Clark Cunningham’s The Future of Legal Education course  will be presenting data she gathered on our approach to transactional learning in interviews with trainee solicitors who had passed through the GGSL Diploma in Legal Practice (I’ll be blogging the conference at Zeugma).   For further information on this and contextual information on interdisciplinary as well as historical context see Maharg, P., Transforming Legal Education.  For further comment on these type of approaches, see for instance Lewins, K. (2006) The groupwork experience in civil procedure, 14, 1, E-Law Journal – Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law, at  

Apologies for the self-serving references above; but they do add to the classic literature on simulation activities which points out how powerful simulations can be as modes of learning and working.  When well designed they draw students into the types of decisions, dilemmas, routines, ethical modes of thinking & learning, modes of backward & forward reasoning and much else that practitioners carry out.  Can they be used as high-stakes assessment zones?  Unquestionably.  Our practice at the GGSL proves that; and though we’ve been involved in this for seven years, we’re really only at the start of an evolving process to understand what works best, for whom and why.  And of course sim hardware & software improves hugely, year on year.  The Carnegie report and the Best Practices text are at the vanguard of a movemet to produce much more radical and practice-oriented forms of learning than we have at present.  Already other professional groupings are creating of simulations a form of critical assessment.  Thomas Reeve, in the discussion of his recent paper on the ITFORUM (, pointed out that in the US failure to complete simulated flights successfully can have serious consequences for commercial pilots.

There are wider implications of this approach.  See for example, which is a ‘not-school’ yet ‘not-home’ educational environment for school children (discussed at  As they point out there, ‘Schome will include flexible use of both physical and virtual spaces to support learning processes and enhance community.  Such spaces are variants of ‘third spaces’, those virtual spaces between home and work, between the academy and the workplace, that may help to re-define the relationships between both polarities.  There are fascinating possibilities for the transformation of legal education in all this.  Will we take up the challenge?

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